By 1887, the US Navy recognized the potential for submarines in its fleet and held a design competition for a new underwater vessel. The Navy Department's Bureau of Construction and Repair (BUC&R) announced an open competition for designing a submarine torpedo boat in November 1887 and published a circular of requirements that called for a speed of 15 knots surfaced and eight knots submerged, with underwater endurance of two hours. The boat was to be armed with torpedoes and capable of descending to a depth of 150 feet.
Holland submitted a design in partnership with the Philadelphia shipbuilders, William Cramp & Sons, and joined a field of four competitors, including the Swede, Thorsten Nordenfeldt, who was also allied with Cramp. After due deliberation, which lasted into the next year, the Navy reviewers eventually announced that Holland's design had prevailed. But again, the appearance of success was short-lived. When the Cramp shipyard refused to agree to a performance guarantee for what was in reality an experimental prototype, the Navy Board withdrew their approval and recommended another competition.
The Navy's second solicitation to acquire a viable submarine was held in 1888/89, and was also won by John Holland. Much the same designs were submitted for consideration, and once again John Holland was declared the winner. How-ever, after Benjamin Harrison defeated Grover Cleveland in the presidential election of that year, the new Secretary of the Navy, General Benjamin Tracy, decided to divert the money that had been allocated to the submarine project to complete several surface ships already on the ways. This latest setback left Holland both discouraged and dangerously close to penury, and he secured a low-paying position as a draftsman with the Morris and Cummings Dredging Company, in May 1890.
Holland's new submarine design was patented in 1892, an election year that returned Grover Cleveland to the presidency and re-energized support for submarines within the Navy Department. Thus, in March 1893, Congress appropriated $200,000 to reopen the submarine competition, and a month later, the Navy called again for designs and reissued the same requirements circular that had been used in 1887 and 1888. Consequently, in the spring of 1893, the "John P. Holland Torpedo Boat Company" was incorporated in the state of New York with Holland as manager and Elihu Frost as secretary-treasurer. In return for a substantial - but not controlling - amount of stock in the new enterprise, Holland agreed to assign his prior submarine patents and all rights to future inventions to the company.
Beside Lake and Holland, six other submarine pioneers entered the 1893 competition. There is still significant controversy about the degree to which political influence determined the ultimate choice of Holland's design, But he had, in fact, demonstrated a rudimentary gasoline-powered submarine, the Fenian Ram, twelve years earlier, whereas Lake's concept existed only on paper. In contrast to Lake's "level diving" approach, Holland designed his submarine to be just slightly buoyant when the ballast tanks were completely full and used the hydrodynamic forces generated by a set of stern planes to submerge the boat and keep it down. Thus, his submarine was intended to operate largely in the mid-water region using porpoise-like diving and surfacing maneuvers, while Lake's vehicle was essentially optimized to run on the bottom.
George C. Baker of Chicago, who had already demonstrated his own submarine on Lake Michigan the previous year. When word got out that the review board again preferred Holland's design, Baker was able to delay the outcome by noting that Holland's entry existed only on paper and coercing the Navy into witnessing a demonstration of his "real" boat. The result of that trial - which went badly - served only to justify a "final" recommendation to the Secretary of the Navy in favor of Holland in September. But in the face of another protest from Baker, the Secretary still procrastinated, and it wasn't until March 1895 - Baker having meanwhile died of appendicitis and with Elihu Frost enthusiastically marketing Holland's design to foreign governments - that he yielded to intense lobbying by Frost and others and agreed to award a construction contract for $200,000. The long delay was owing, Mr. Holland has said, to the opposition of a few officers of Conservative spirit, who preferred to see the value of submarine boats fully established by their employment in other navies, and their place in schemes of attack and defence properly located, before they could recommend their adoption in their own navy.
To meet the letter of the Navy's requirements, which required a surface speed of 15 knots and a correspondingly large propulsion plant, the new boat - named Plunger - emerged as a real behemoth: 85 feet long and nearly 12 feet in diameter, with submerged displacement of 168 tons. Powered on the surface by two triple-expansion steam enginesr, Plunger used storage batteries and a 70-horsepower electric motor underwater, with the former charged by a smaller compound steam engine. Steam at 200 pounds per square inch was supplied by an enormous boiler amidships directly below the conning tower - through which a retractable smokestack protruded - and the boat was fitted with three propellers, one for each main engine, and a third for the electric motor ; guaranteed speed, 15 knots on the surface for two hours and 14 knots submerged to 1 foot with the conning-tower above water ; indicated horse-power, surface 1625, submerged 200 ; motor, steam engine on surface, fed with liquid fuel ; electric motor, completely submerged, giving speed of 8 knots for 6 hours. Two torpedo tubes were to be carried in the bow.
Although the Plunger was actually launched on 7 August, 1897, she was never completed, although for three years various alterations were carried out. After the ship was launched in August 1897, dockside power-plant trials revealed - not surprisingly - that the unshielded boiler made the fire room uninhabitable on the surface and that its residual heat precluded submerged operation by the crew even with the boiler shut down. The steam engines were removed and were replaced by oil motors.
While Plunger's problems remained unsuspected, the U.S. Senate held a series of hearings on submarine warfare in early 1896 at which William Kimball - now a lieutenant commander, naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan, and several other authorities testified expansively about the valuable role that submersibles might play in the future U.S. Navy. As a direct result, Congress acted in June of that year to authorize the purchase of two more submarines of the Plunger type and appropriated $350,000 for the purpose. Gratified by this new evidence of support - but with growing certainty that the original Plunger was a dead end - Holland subsequently convinced his colleagues at the Holland Torpedo Boat Company to build a new submarine prototype as a private venture, independent of Navy requirements and in strict accordance with his own conception. Thus, in late 1896, while construction continued doggedly on Plunger in Baltimore, Holland VI was laid down at the Crescent Shipyard in Elizabethport, New Jersey, with Charles Morris as superintending engineer.
As the Plunger progressed the John P. Holland Torpedo Boat Company was paid successive installments of the contract price, and these part payments not only constituted reimbursement for the cost of construction, but included the profit the contractors expected to make. The "Plunger" was never submerged. After more than five years of delayed construction - during which time the boat had served the profitable commercial end of stock selling and advertising- she was utterly abandoned, and the money paid out by the Government was in effect refunded.
By the time the modifications to the Plunger had been effected the Holland Torpedo-boat Company came to the conclusion that the Plunger, when completed according to the terms of the contract, would be so inferior to the more modern Hollands that they offered to refund the Government all it had paid them upon the Plunger and all expenses connected with the contract, provided the Navy Department would enter into a contract for a new Holland. The proposition was accepted. Holland VI became the U.S. Navy's first submarine, USS Holland (SS-1) in 1900.
Those interested have stated that the real cause of the Plunger's failure was due to the manner in which the Navy Department interfered with the original design and insisted upon an installation of steam machinery and other features not contemplated by Mr. Holland. Rear-Admiral George W. Melville, in his evidence before Congress in May of 1902, stamped that charge as absolutely false; and the author had in his possession plans sent him by Mr. Holland bearing date of June 12, 1893 - a week prior to the opening of bids at the Navy Department - in which a steam boiler and other features are shown, since charged to governmental interference.
Rear-Admiral Melville further testified that the board on construction, of which he was a member, were unanimous in their belief that the design presented by Mr. Holland would never produce a successful boat; but ne urged the Secretary of the Navy, then Mr. Herbert, to award a contract to the John P. Holland Torpedo Boat Company on the ground that Congress had provided the money for experimental purposes, and that only by carrying out the intent of Congress would they be able to prove or disprove the practicability of the proposed craft. That was the beginning of Governmental experimentation.
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